Pictures and Promenades – Mussorgsky goes for a walk

Russian Academy of Fine Arts

It was to the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg  [above] –  now known as the Russian Academy of Fine Arts –  that Mussorgsky went in 1874 to visit his deceased friend’s paintings. Quite an impressive building in itself, and Hartmann’s exhibition was also impressive, comprising over 400 works – watercolours, drawings and sketches.  What grandeur and splendour as a backdrop for this exhibition. Hartmann, as an architect, would have been delighted.

Russian Academy of Fine Arts panorama

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition opens with a musical ‘selfie’, an ambulatory Promenade as the composer walks in – you can almost hear his pride as he enters the gallery. Although the metre is irregular, with alternate bars of 5 beats and 6 beats, the tread is steady, the mood confident, the pace purposeful. Allegro giusto, the score tells us, nel modo russico, senza allegrezza, ma poco sostenuto.


The Royal Marriage at St Petersburg, the Greek Ceremony, in the Imperial Chapel of the Winter Palace1874 was a significant year for Mussorgsky, and for St Petersburg. In January, the world premiere of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov took place. The exhibition of paintings took place in February and March. And also in March, Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Albert, Duke of Edinburgh, married the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia in the Imperial Chapel of the Winter Palace [left].

The Illustrated London News was there, publishing ‘Sketches in St Petersburg during the Royal Marriage Festivities, [below, right] .Sketches in St Petersburg during the Royal Marriage Festivities



And there were other ‘Sketches in St Petersburg’ published too, in April 1874 [below].

So that is where the exhibition took place, and these were the people on the streets that year, when Mussorgsky ventured out for his Promenade.

We’ll hear further Promenades as he walks about, his reactions reflected in their speeds, keys and registers. But next, on to the first painting …




Sketches in St Petersburg








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Pictures – Background and Perspective

In 1874 the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky attended an exhibition of paiVictor Hartmannntings by his friend Victor Hartmann, painter and architect (left), who had died the previous year. Mussorgsky immortalized the exhibition by composing a work based on some of the pictures which he saw. He also immortalized his own attendance by incorporating a series of ‘Promenades’, all based on the same musical theme, which show his changing moods and reactions as he walks about.

What a unique idea. Works of art have inspired pieces of music before and since – Liszt’s Sposalizio and Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse spring to mind – but to capture a number of pictures plus the viewer’s response  is surely a one-off. Mussorgsky composed the piece in three weeks, using the name Hartmann as a working title. In a letter to Vladimir Stassov, the art critic whose idea the exhibition was, Mussorgsky wrote:

‘My dear généralissime, Hartmann is seething as Boris [his opera, Boris Godunov] seethed,—sounds and ideas hang in the air, I am gulping and overeating, and can barely manage to scribble them on paper. I am writing the 4th №—the transitions are good (on the ‘promenade’). I want to work more quickly and reliably. My physiognomy can be seen in the interludes. So far I think it’s well turned… ‘


Mighty_HandfulMusssorgsky was a member of the group known variously as ‘ the Five’, ‘The Balakirev Circle’ or ‘the Mighty Handful’, five Russian nationalist composers [left] who sought to give a distinctly Russian identity to their music, rather than a European flavour. Remarkably, they were largely self-taught amateurs; Mussorgsky’s ‘day-job’ was in the civil service.

So – got your ticket for the exhibition? And you’re wearing comfortable shoes? Right. Let’s go through the door of the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg and start the tour …



Mily Balakirev (top) César Cui (upper left)
Modest Mussorgsky (upper right)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (lower left)
Alexander Borodin (lower right)

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Pictures at an Exhibition

Great GateAnother year -another theme for my blog. In 2016 we are going north to Russia, for composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and ‘The Mighty Five’, of whose compositions Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the most celebrated works for piano.

Join me this year as we wander around Hartmann’s exhibition of paintings, [The Great Gate of Kiev, left,] and wander through Moussorgsky’s musical realisation of them. And we’ll explore solo works by the above Russian composers, for two hands and for left hand alone, some duets for four hands, two pieces for six hands, and a suite for four hands at two pianos. A very hands-on experience.

I look forward to your company …

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Debussy, the children, and Le Pain Quotidien

I wanted to find a Christmas-themed piece by Debussy for this, the final post of 2015. Something cosy, with a feel-good factor. Perhaps involving children. So I googled ‘Debussy, Noël‘ and immediately I found what I was looking for.

Well, almost.  Actually, it was quite a shock.



Yes, it is for Christmas. And it’s for children. But it is for homeless children, with both the text and the music written by Debussy in December 1915, a hundred years ago this month; a plea on behalf of French children made homeless during World War I, whose houses have been destroyed, who have lost their mother, their school and their teacher, their bed and their shoes – and who ask not for toys, but for ‘le pain quotidien‘  – our daily bread.

Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons was published in 1916, written for solo s-l225voice, and subsequently arranged for two parts, as in the YouTube performance given by the French boys above. Marked doux et triste, the vocal melody glides and chatters above an impatient accompaniment which rattles along beneath. It is Debussy’s final song, a Christmas carol with a difference. A sobering note on which to conclude this year’s series of pieces by composers from The Lunch that Never Happened – Brahms, Debussy, Beethoven and Schubert.

Many thanks to you all for reading and for keeping me company in 2015. See you next year….


Nous n’avons plus de maisons !
Les ennemis ont tout pris, tout pris, tout pris,
Jusqu’à notre petit lit!
Ils ont brûlé l’école et notre maître aussi,
Ils ont brûlé l’église et monsieur Jésus-Christ,
Et le vieux pauvre qui n’a pas pu s’en aller!
Nous n’avons plus de maisons!
Les ennemis ont tout pris, tout pris, tout pris,
Jusqu’à notre petit lit!

Bien sûr! Papa est à la guerre,
Pauvre maman est morte!
Avant d’avoir vu tout ça.
Qu’est-ce que l’on va faire ?
Noël, petit Noël, n’allez pas chez eux, n’allez plus jamais chez eux, punissez-les !
Vengez les enfants de France !
Les petits Belges, les petits Serbes, et les petits Polonais aussi !
Si nous en oublions, pardonnez-nous.
Noël ! Noël ! surtout, pas de joujoux,
Tâchez de nous redonner le pain quotidien.

Nous n’avons plus de maisons!
Les ennemis ont tout pris, tout pris, tout pris.

Jusqu’à notre petit lit!
Ils ont brûlé l’école et notre maître aussi,
Ils ont brûlé l’église et monsieur Jésus-Christ,
Et le vieux pauvre qui n’a pas pu s’en aller !

Noël ! Écoutez-nous, nous n’avons plus de petits sabots !
Mais donnez la victoire aux enfants de France.



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Brahms and his ‘nebulous garb of rhapsodies’ … Op 79

Elisabeth von HerzogenbergIf you’re looking for a Big Romantic Piece for a post-grade 8 level pianist, look no further. Brahms’  Rhapsody Op 79 No 2 has it all: a sweeping , dramatic opening, a beguiling, pleading second subject and a mysterious repeated triplet figure beneath which octaves tread stealthily, creating an atmosphere of suspense which builds to shattering climaxes. I’ve yet to find any teenager who didn’t love this piece and revel in its challenges.

Written in 1879 and dedicated to Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, above left, who had been a pupil of Brahms, the piece is marked Molto passionato ma non troppo allegro, and opens with a distinctive technical feature where the LH crosses the RH to play notes in the melody, thus cleverly avoiding unevenness in the accompaniment.

Technically there are large chords and octave leaps, so hand-span is a consideration. Good independence of the fingers will also be needed.  It needs a bold approach, tempered by an appreciation of the mysterious, especially in those ppp passages where the music almost stands still in some sort of harmonic limbo, in spite of the ever-present, murmuring triplets.

Brahms’ musical fingerprints are all over the score, both by virtue of the texture and the harmonic language. Note also the typical, written-out rallentando as the note values gradually lengthen towards the end of the piece before the two final, defiant chords.

Brahms and Elisabeth corresponded most engagingly  about this rhapsody and its companion, Op 79 no 1 in B minor. Elisabeth wrote on February 4, 1880: ….‘But the fact that the G minor is my favourite does not make me insusceptible to the rugged beauty of the B minor with its very sweet trio. The way the trio theme is indicated beforehand  is quite wonderful. Indeed, the whole of this episode, with the right-hand triplets and the expressive basses, is another case where words are inadequate. One is so glad that the piece closes with that too, leaving the most impressive part uppermost in the mind…’ 

She goes on to write of  the pain of a sleepless night, then continues:

‘…. But at sight of the two much-admired pieces I forgot all my grief and pain, and greeted them like old friends. It is hard to believe that there ever was a time when I did not know them, so quickly does the barely acquired treasure become incorporated with the accumulation of long standing. Once known and loved, it is a possession for all time. And, indeed, these pieces seem to me beautiful beyond measure — more and more beautiful as I come to know their bends and turnings, their exquisite ebb and flow, which affects me so extraordinarily, especially in the G minor…’

Brahms subsequently wrote to say that he wished to dedicate the pieces to her. She replied on May 3rd, 1880:

My dear Friend, – what a charming surprise! For, in spite of your breathing from time to time of a kind intention to dedicate something to me, I never quite believed in it… and now you put me to shame by giving me just these two glorious pieces for my own. I need not dwell upon my great delight over the dedication. You know whether I love these pieces or not, and you know whether I am bound to be delighted or not at seeing my name flaunt itself on a production of your brain. So let me say simply thank you, though with all my heart. Elisabeth von Herzogenberg_2As to your inquiry, you know I am always most partial to the non-committal word ‘Klavierstücke’ just because it is non-committal; but probably that won’t do, in which case the name Rhapsodien is the best, I expect, although the clearly-defined form of both pieces seems somewhat at variance with one’s conception of a rhapsody.
But it is practically a characteristic of these various designations that they have lost their true characteristics through application, so that they can be used for this or that at will, without many qualms…
Welcome, then, ye (to me) nameless ones, in your nebulous garb of rhapsodies!’

Welcome indeed.

The full text of the Brahms-Herzogenberg correspondence can be found here.



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Schubert – edited by Brahms. Drei Klavierstucke D946, No 2

Franz_Schubert_c1827It was one of those moments. One of those moments when you hear music for which you would climb down a ladder; one of those moments when you are driving and you hear something on the radio which keeps you in the car, listening, long after you have arrived at your destination.

The piece was the second of Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke D946.  Written in 1828, the pieces were not published until 1868 – and edited by Brahms. So yet another link for The Lunch That Never Happened.

Each of the pieces is characterful and full of interest, but it is the second of the three which caught my ear. and necessitated a quick call to Forwards to get a copy.

In the warm key of E flat major, the piece opens simply and quietly, and sublimely, with one of Schubert’s lovely melodies, accompanied by a flowing LH. It expands and blossoms, as if sung as a duet by two sopranos, while the LH bass reaches for lower notes, extending the range of the musical landscape.

One of the arresting features of the piece is the contrast given by two new, different sections, giving a Rondo form: ABACA.

The ‘B’ section modulates to C minor, and above a menacing LH tremolando figure, the RH mutters darkly in double thirds. Loud chords in a cross-rhythm end the phrases emphatically, and there are sinister key changes. The LH takes the melody while the RH continues the accompaniment – rotary movement needed here, by the way – and the music builds to a climax, then subsides to a murmur, now in C major with touches of anxiety as the foreign-to-the-key A flat sometimes interjects. Give a little ease to the tempo during the modulatory turn of phrase at the end of the section, ushering in the return to the first theme, theme ‘A’.

The ‘C’ section is different again, at first in a disquieting A flat minor with a change of metre away from a swaying compound duple to a more cut and dried simple duple, with two minims per bar. The repeated quaver chords which now appear as part of the theme and accompaniment need to be played neatly.

Into B minor for a more martial flavour  – how ever did we get into that key – then back into A flat minor, and finally to the blessed relief of E flat major for the final ‘A’ section. Play it lovingly.

Here is Brendel:

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Summer School for Pianists 2015 – what a week!

steinway_bendingI’m sitting in my Suffolk kitchen, watching the rain fall gently on the tomatoes in our vegetable plot, lost for words as I try to begin a blogpost about this year’s Summer School for Pianists, which ended yesterday.

We’ve just had a fantastic week of music, friendship, new discoveries, old favourites, hard work, laughter and fun, all around the theme of  ‘Dance’. There were 18 hours of masterclasses, guaranteeing each delegate 3 half-hour slots. Three student concerts showcased our course members’ skills as pianists and their ingenuity in repertoire choice – a Milonga by Piazzola and a  Szymanowski Mazurka spring to mind – and the tutors presented four topics as ‘Piano Matters‘ –The Metronome – Friend or Foe? A User’s Guide to Ornamentation,  A Passion for Liszt, and Perspectives on 20th Century Piano Music. 

Baroque dance expert Ruth Waterman showed us the steps of dances from Baroque suites. Anyone for a Minuet?!

Bach Minuet manuscript

The tutors’ solo piano recitals featured music from Couperin to Sorabji – by way of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Liszt, Schumann, Scriabin, Debussy and Busoni – and lieder by Schubert, Bruch and Ravel, preceded by Aperitifsshort talks giving ‘tasting notes’ for the music to be performed. Liquid Aperitifs were on sale in the bar too, before and after.  Our joint concert –  Piano Now! – included music by  Dai Fujikura and Richard Nye, as well as pieces by Sculthorpe, John Ogden, John Adams and Anne Boyd.

George_Goodwin_Kilburne_Enoch_ArdenA stunning late-night performance of Richard Strauss’ melodrama, Enoch Arden, with poetry by Alfred Lord Tennyson,  moved some of us to tears, while Richard Nye’s imaginative piece, This Marvellous Machine, had the audience laughing out loud. The accompaniment class was full, and the duet masterclass  was so popular that it needed extra time.

And people went swimming in the pool, tried the gym, disappeared to explore further afield on our free afternoon period mid-week, sang in the choir, took advantage of the many practice pianos at The Performance Hub , booked private lessons, and enjoyed many lively conversations over meals and during the coffee and tea breaks. The final evening saw us celebrating with a Gala Dinner.

Next year’s dates have been announced – 13th -19th August 2016 – and next year’s theme –‘Song’. As an optional suggestion, course members are invited to explore the many piano works influenced by song: Songs without Words, song transcriptions, Song of the Mad Woman on the Seashore, Chants, Solveig’s Song, Song of the Nightingale, Irish Tune from County Derry, folksongs, Oiseaux Exotiques, Gershwin transcriptions, Variations on Ah ! vous dirai-je maman ... the possibilities are endless. 

We hope to see you there at The  Performance Hub on the University of Wolverhampton’s Walsall campus.  Deposits are being taken now and classes are already filling up – contact for details and watch this space – for further information.

Now, since I don’t have to water the tomatoes, I’m off to the piano to look out next year’s repertoire …

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